Philip Larkin’s “Afternoons”
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“Afternoons” is a melancholy poem, about the inevitability of change and the passing of youth. The poem, written by Philip Larkin, forces the reader to reflect upon the lifestyle of a young woman with a husband and family. Previously, I thought this would be a very fulfilling lifestyle; however, Larkin has changed my opinion on this matter. Although Larkin’s thoughts on this life are completely biased, Larkin does make a valid point, which is that these young women lead a quite monotonous lifestyle.
Larkin puts across many themes throughout the whole poem. He effectively conveys the demands that children can have upon a parent’s life, in particular, the mother. However, he also reflects upon the changes that occur in people’s life as a result of having children. Philip Larkin has efficiently brought to our attention the lack of freedom which has been brought about by adopting a new role. This is his main theme throughout the poem. He discusses this loss of freedom in great detail through his skilled techniques as a writer, including his powerful use of imagery and word choice.
In the opening verse, Larkin presents the idea of the dull, repetitive and empty life of a typical housewife when this poem was written between the nineteen fifties and the nineteen sixties. By setting such a scene so quickly, Larkin forced the reader to contemplate the truth of this opinion. Through word choice, Larkin presented this idea to the reader, when he says:
“In the hollows of afternoons”
The word “hollows” meaning empty and creates the impression that the mothers’ lives are empty also. Larkin believes that the life of a woman who marries and has a child will become empty, will lack fulfilment and will be unhappy. When Larkin wrote this I was shocked that he could have such a one sided opinion. Having a family does mean that you have to become less selfish. However, I do not believe that Larkin is correct when he implies that they have no contentment. Nevertheless Larkin did bring to my attention upon reading this that family life is not perfect. There are lots of sacrifices that have to be made in having a family that I did not realise before reading this poem. However, Larkin also suggests to us that the mothers are trapped in motherhood; he contrasts this with the freedom of the children. When he emphasises the children’s freedom he says:
“Setting free their children.”
The new recreation ground.”
Which shows that the mothers are enclosed in this space; this daily routine is closing in on their lives and trapping them. However, in contrast to this image, we hear of the children being set free; they have no responsibilities. They are able to have a lot of fun and liberty, whereas the mothers are left to hold the bags and watch over the children. This emphasises the point that their freedom, since having children, has diminished. Reading the poem made me reflect on early childhood, where I realised what Larkin was saying was true to a certain extent. My mother did have to spend most of her time watching over me or entertaining me. I would not say, as Larkin suggests, that my mother was imprisoned by her family, but I do recognise the point he was making.
At the beginning of the second verse Larkin creates the theme of uniformity of all the families in the area in which they live. He builds up this impression to the reader by his powerful use of structure. Larkin says:
“Behind them, at intervals,
Stand husbands in skilled trades,”
The use of the plurals on the words “husbands” and “trades” emphasises that all these people are living an identical life to each other and that there is nothing individual about them, their partners or their children. This is a simple way of making this point. However it is also very effective in achieving its goal of showing monotony in these people’s lives. Larkin, in the second verse, also conveys the theme that a loss of romance is inevitably brought about by having children. We are shown this idea by Larkin when he says:
“And the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
Near the television:”
Larkin’s choice of the word “lying” is rather unusual. The Wedding Album is a memory of a very important day in a couple’s lives, one expect that this would be taken great care of, instead of merely left lying next to the television. This shows that the wedding day has lost some significance and romance has gone out of their relationship. Reading this verse made me contemplate the way I expected a family life to be; I expected that the romance would be just the same as ever, but Larkin has changed my opinion on this matter.
Larkin has a different approach in the final verse; he takes the approach of telling the reader of the experiences yet to be discovered by the next generation. This was introduced in the previous verse. Larkin continues this idea verse with the use of his structure:
“Is ruining their courting places
That are still courting places
(but the lovers are still in school)”
This is a technique known as enjambment; it is continuing the idea of the courting places in a more skilful and powerful way. Larkin has forced the reader to carry on this chain of thought. Larkin is a skilled poet with a powerful use of imagery. Throughout the poem his imagery has created a vivid picture for the reader. For instance, Larkin created the image of the children having the rest of their lives to enjoy the experiences, which their parents have already had, through this metaphor:
“Finding more unripe acorns”
Larkin is not just talking of the acorns that the children are collecting. He is using the “unripe acorns” as a symbol for the children’s lives, which are unripe in the sense that they do not have the wisdom and the experience that their parents have. The children themselves are unripe, they must develop physically and personally. This leaves them open to new opportunities and they will one day be like their parents.
Larkin has put down many valuable points about parenthood, with which I agree. However, I do not agree with how biased Larkin was throughout the poem. He did not mention one of the joys of being a mother, such as the love you have for a child or seeing their happiness over simple day to day activities such as playing at a playground. Larkin saw this occasion as a depressing, dull event for the mothers at the playground. His one sidedness, I feel made me engage with the poem more than I believe I would have previously, as it made me challenge my own opinions and beliefs about parenthood and family life.